Something about figs conjures the holiday spirit. Maybe it’s that classic Christmas carol clamoring for “figgy pudding,” or maybe it’s the way figs cozy up so well to warming flavors like vanilla, caramel, honey and orange—not to mention dark, wintry spirits like bourbon and Cognac. Either way, it’s no wonder that bartenders are rediscovering this often-overlooked fruit as a favorite cocktail ingredient, even though it presents some unique challenges.
“You can’t muddle fresh figs, because you can’t get a good flavor out of them,” says Joshua Pearson, head bartender at Chicago’s Sepia. Furthermore, the season for fresh figs is fleeting—with a quick, shorter season in early summer followed by a second, main crop that starts in late summer and runs through early fall—and once you’ve secured ripe figs, they perish quickly. One workaround is to use dried figs, which ship and store well and are available in abundance throughout the year. Another is to make or purchase fig preserves, purees, or jams.
There’s also the question of which type of fig to use. Many bartenders favor the super-sweet and widely available Black Mission fig, named for the mission priests who planted the fruit as they traveled north along the California coast. When fresh, Black Mission figs have a distinctive black-purple skin and deep pink flesh. Jonny Raglin, a bartender at Absinthe Brasserie in San Francisco, prefers this variety for infusing in his Fig-Thyme Cordial because it imparts a deep, lovely color to the elixir. (He should know: Raglin makes 30 to 40 bottles of fig cordial at a time.)
While Pearson uses Black Missions for some of his cocktails, like his Fig Old Fashioned, he also enjoys the amber-hued Kadota fig, which is nearly seedless, making it a favorite for canning, preserving and drying. “They’re smaller, honey-sweet and when fresh, have a great aroma,” says Pearson, who uses fresh Kadotas to infuse his Cognac in his sparkling Figue et Cognac cocktail. Other varieties to try include the sweet Brown Turkey, which is delicious fresh; Adriatic figs, whose super-sweet flavor is akin to strawberry jam; and golden, nutty Calimyrna figs, another favorite for eating fresh.
While flavor is a big part of the fig’s appeal, bartenders also cite the heady fragrance figs impart to a cocktail, evoking comforting memories of fruitcakes, braised duck or other holiday treats. As Pearson puts it: “It’s the aroma of Christmas.”